Three finalists have emerged in the search for Minnesota's next U.S. attorney.

Andrew Luger, who held the job from 2014 to 2017, and former assistant federal prosecutors Surya Saxena and Lola Velazquez-Aguilu have all made the shortlist, according to sources familiar with the selection process.

The search committee is being led by Minnesota U.S. Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar, with help from law enforcement officials and prosecutors from around the state. The chosen candidate, if confirmed by the U.S. Senate, will succeed Erica MacDonald, a Trump appointee who last month heeded the call from President Joe Biden for U.S. attorneys in almost every state to step down.

The U.S. attorney in Minnesota oversees an office of about 130 people and sets priorities for prosecuting crimes in the federal court system. Under MacDonald, the office focused on cartel-linked drug cases, online sexual exploitation of minors, violent crime in Indian Country and the illegal gun trade.

Anders Folk, who served as MacDonald's deputy, has been appointed to lead the office until a replacement is sworn in.

The names of the finalists were first reported by Sahan Journal and the Minnesota Reformer and independently confirmed by the Star Tribune.

Velazquez-Aguilu works as lead counsel for Medtronic. Last July, she was named to a team of attorneys assisting pro bono in the prosecution of Derek Chauvin, the police officer on trial for the death of George Floyd.

She served, at the appointment of Gov. Tim Walz, as chairwoman of the Minnesota Commission on Judicial Selection from 2019-2020.

Velazquez-Aguilu worked in the U.S. Attorney's Office as a prosecutor from 2010-2018, specializing in white-collar crime cases, such as the fraud case against former executives of Starkey Hearing Technologies. She received her law degree from the University of Wisconsin.

Saxena, now general counsel for UnitedHealth, spent almost a decade as a prosecutor in Minnesota's U.S. Attorney's Office, leaving in 2019. An alumnus of Georgetown University Law Center, Saxena was also part of the team that prosecuted Starkey executives, and he worked on several high-profile drug cases.

Luger, a partner in the law firm Jones Day, oversaw many major prosecutions in his three years as Minnesota's top federal prosecutor during the Obama administration. Among them: the largest terrorism trial in the country, of Somali Americans who left home to join ISIS.

Luger's record is also driving a vocal opposition to his candidacy for reappointment. On Thursday afternoon, outside the courthouse where jury selection for the Chauvin trial is underway, members of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations announced they had collected "nearly 100" signatures, including from some lawmakers, in a petition asking the search committee to not choose Luger.

"Bringing back U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger signals to our historical overly policed and overly surveilled communities that we do not care about rebuilding or repairing the harm that was once done to us," said Mohamed Ibrahim, deputy director of CAIR-MN. "Bringing back U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger risks permanently alienating and disenfranchising a significant portion of young Minnesotans who we need to engage in the political process."

Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR-MN, said the criticism is tied to Luger's role in leading one of the Obama-era pilot projects to "counter violent extremism" during his past time in office. Hussein said the program led to bullying and Islamaphobia across the state, pushing a message that Minnesota's Somali community is "a community of suspect."

Asma Jama believes the criticism of Luger is misguided.

Jama met Luger in 2016, after a woman hit her in the face with a beer mug in an Applebee's and demanded she speak English. Luger met with members of the Muslim community at the time and assured them his office would investigate and prosecute hate crimes. "When my incident happened, he showed me a lot of respect," she said.

Jama said CAIR doesn't speak for many people in the Somali community who support Luger.

"You can work with him because he has a good heart," she said. "He can do the job."

Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036

Correction: Previous versions of this article misstated which agency prosecuted the woman who assaulted Asma Jama.